Fake Limbs That Work Like Real Ones, Ctd

Last weekend’s post about mind-controlled artificial limbs left a reader his shaking head:

It frankly drives me crazy to watch videos about developments in myoelectric upper-extremity prosthetics like the one you posted and to read commentators like Victoria Turk “herald this breakthrough.” Yes, I can choose not to watch or read, but I’m an upper-extremity amputee, and I’ve worn a body-powered prosthesis most of my life. So why wouldn’t I let my curiosity reign?

Reports like this are crazy-making because for me, the products they tout inevitably disappoint. Indeed, I probably wouldn’t wear the prosthetic device with implanted electrodes, even in the very unlikely event that I were offered the opportunity. They evoke the hoary sci-fi cliché of the melding of man and machine, and while mildly interesting, they aren’t the answer for the everyday, prosthesis-wearing amputee.

I once tried a myoelectric arm with surface electrodes.

I promptly went back to my body-powered prosthesis, which is fitted with a hook for a terminal device. It’s far lighter, easier to manipulate, more dexterous, and more robust, and it’s not subject to the involuntary opening and closing of the surface electrode prosthesis. It also doesn’t discolor in the sun (that ‘hand’ is a silicon glove, of course) or run out of power.

Look at the video and see what the terminal device (the hand itself) can do: open and close. The end. It’s gross motor movement, at best. Dexterity at the individual finger level is coming, but it’s still a long, long way off (decades, if you ask me) from what you, the ‘handed’ majority, enjoy and take completely for granted. As it is, given the prosthetic hands in this video, give me a hook any day.

Then, there’s the bottom line: price. Who pays for these fantastically expensive myoelectric limbs? My new arm cost $7,500 and is as basic as they come. A myoelectric starts in the tens of thousands of dollars. One with implants? Few know, but I imagine that we’d likely start the conversation at $100,000. Impractical, in other words, for anyone but the well-off or those lucky enough to live where the state funds their prostheses (I live in Canada, and the state paid 65 percent of my artificial-limb cost. My supplementary, work-paid health plan covered the rest, but it would have capped at $3g).

For the working man, the poor, those who live in countries where state health care is weak, or in other words, likely for the majority of upper-extremity amputees in the world, simple, body-powered prostheses are the past and for the moment, also the future.

Forgive the rant, but this touched a nerve, as it were.